World Humanitarian Day comes to Expo Milano 2015

Article, 19.08.2015

In conflict situations, the food security of victims goes hand in hand with the safety of aid workers. This in a nutshell is the message that Switzerland and the United Nations wanted to get across at the event they co-organised at Expo Milano on Wednesday 19 August 2015. A "humanitarian parade" was the highlight of the day.

This event organised by Switzerland and the United Nations raised visitors' awareness about the plight of people suffering from hunger and the work done by aid workers. © SDC

The universal exposition in Milan was chosen as the venue to celebrate this year's World Humanitarian Day. The SDC decided to highlight the link between food security – an issue at the heart of Expo Milano – and the homage that is paid every year to those who come to the aid of those most in need, sometimes at risk to their own lives.

To raise awareness of these issues among visitors to Expo Milano, the SDC and the United Nations pulled out all the stops – in the form of huge letters. After some introductory remarks, a hundred volunteers marched down the "Decumano" – the main avenue in Expo Milano – each holding up a letter.

Hundreds of volunteers wore letters spelling out humanitarian principles along the main avenue of Expo Milano 2015. © SDC

The letters quickly became recognisable as words such as "Solidarity", "Impartiality" and "Dignity" – 11 fundamental humanitarian principles in all – and formed a 1.3 km parade between the various pavilions, passing by spectators who were visibly impressed.

Those taking part in the event – most of them young – came from all over the world and represented a variety of NGOs, UN organisations and donor countries. © SDC

The parade ended in front of the Swiss pavilion, where visitors were invited to attend a public debate on the link between hunger and war and on food as an instrument of peace.

The parade was followed by a debate on the theme "If hunger is a weapon of war, food is an instrument of peace." © SDC

Five speakers exchanged views: Manuel Bessler, Assistant Director General of the SDC and Delegate for Humanitarian Aid, Barbara Noseworthy, Assistant Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Toby Lanzer, Assistant UN Secretary-General & Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, Rashid Khalikov, Director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva (OCHA), and Cornelis Wittebrood of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). Each of the speakers was instructed to take one of the principles featured in the parade and link it to the topic of the discussion.

The head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid, Manuel Bessler, far left, alongside journalist and moderator LIana Mistretta, Toby Lanzer, Barbara Noseworthy and Cornelis Wittebrood (from left to right). @ SDC © SDC

Manuel Bessler chose the principle of dignity, and gave the example of refugees who are forced into many years of exile because of drawn-out conflicts. Very often the only food available to refugees is food rations distributed in refugee camps on a massive scale by foreign donors. "It would be more dignified for people to receive a certain amount of money every day to be able to buy what they need to feed their families in a local market," noted Manuel Bessler. The head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid said he was in favour of humanitarian organisations making more use of cash transfer programmes. He used the opportunity to recall the actions undertaken by the SDC in the area of food security, especially in fragile contexts.

During the discussion, several of the speakers emphasised the courage and strength shown by victims of humanitarian crises. They also paid tribute to the dedication of colleagues who had lost their lives while on assignments in the field, and spoke of the frustrations caused by the immense and growing needs identified around the world.

More than 500 people took part in various high points of the World Humanitarian Day in Milan. ©SDC

In addition, a #ShareHumanity campaign called on celebrities, influencers and the general public to “donate” their social media feeds for 24 hours, turning social media channels into interactive storytelling platforms.

The example of the Philippines: replanting after the typhoon

Strengthening people's long-term food security is the best way to prevent food emergencies or at least to mitigate the impact of disasters. The SDC is working to achieve this in Niger, southern Africa and Haiti, for example. In the event of a disaster, once emergency relief has been delivered it is important that people are given the means to rebuild their lives. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan destroyed thousands of hectares of rice paddies in the Philippines. Swiss Humanitarian Aid immediately financed the distribution of rice seeds to more than 44,000 farmers, enabling them to replant their crops. Each farmer received over 40 kg of seed, allowing them to produce around two tonnes of rice on the equivalent of a hectare, enough to feed a family of five for a year and to generate vital income for the farmers.

Swiss operations in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan